This week’s special podcast guest is developmental and clinical psychologist, Kathy Platzman from Floortime Atlanta, an expert on the Developmental, Individual differences, Relationship-based (DIR) model. Not only is Dr. Platzman an Expert DIR Training Leader, but she is the Director of Clinical Training for the Interdisciplinary Council on Developmental and Learning (ICDL). She is also a Fielding Graduate University faculty member.
How a caregiver’s regulation affects the child’s regulation with Dr. Kathy Platzman
None of us self-regulate. We learn to self-regulate through co-regulating. The baby cries, we pick them up and calm them down, and if we can’t calm them down, we worry that something is very wrong. To focus on this first developmental capacity is not about figuring out if you can do it, then checking it off your list. We’re doing it all the time. It’s the basis of everything we do.
You help everything when you help parents with this first capacity. You help them influence the child’s ability to learn, regulate, communicate, reason, and think. It’s the most important developmental capacity. Dr. Platzman thinks of the developmental ladder as a wedding cake where the layer on the bottom needs to be the largest and the sturdiest one.
Parents really struggle with this first functional emotional developmental capacity in their children because the world is not designed for the autistic brain and at any moment, we know that anything can set off our child–whether due to sensory processing differences or otherwise. Some children can cry for hours at a time while others can be co-regulated with a loving caregiver fairly quickly.
You also have your own regulation to worry about, which is especially difficult to deal with when in public. And parents have so many different personalities and vary in their ability to adapt over time. Dr. Platzman says that regulation is a big deal for everyone. When people get road rage, they take a big feeling of frustration and take it out on others. Others self-comfort with treats. Still others numb out the feelings.
Of course what we all wish is that we could calm ourselves down and think it through, then adapt accordingly, but that rarely happens with big feelings right away. The same thing is true for children on the spectrum. How do you handle big feelings? Do you ask for help to handle the big feelings? Parents first have to figure out how they regulate themselves, then figure out how to help their children.
The child's individual profile
Some kids need a physical release like jumping on a trampoline. Some need to jump before they go to school all day, or before Grandma comes over. Figuring out your child’s individual sensory processing profile is challenging but so essential. It’s also so satisfying because you can offer real help once you understand your child.
The DIR approach to meltdowns
- With patience, compassion and self-compassion, the first and best thing to do when in meltdown mode is to name the feeling you see in yourself to yourself, and out loud to your child. There is robust data that says that when we name a feeling in ourselves, our limbic system shuts down and our higher brain kicks in. Knowing feelings is very important. “Are you happy, sad, worried, scared, excited? You look so…” Step 1B is to wait. “You look really, really mad now, baby” and wait. State it and hope that it sinks in.
- You can be quite mad at a child who is having a meltdown. You might be thinking, “we’ve been through this a thousand times and this is enough!” But on the outside, you sympathize. “I’m sorry you’re feeling so mad.” Then step 2B is to wait. We are helping the child to calm down by first, stating some feelings, and next by showing empathy. “You’re not alone.”
- The third step is to start to think of a solution. The child’s problem-solving ideas are better than yours for them, but they might not be able to do their best thinking in this moment. So you say, “I wonder what we could do about it” and then step 3B is to wait. Perhaps the child will make an impossible suggestion. You can then validate it with, “I know. I wish we could do something like that. I wish it could be that easy.” Then you suggest, “I wonder if we just sat down and I gave you a big hug…” and perhaps the child doesn’t like it. You can still suggest, “Well we’ll figure out something.” Now everyone has started to calm down.
Until next week… here’s to affecting autism through playful interactions!